No Sacrificing of Basic Principles for Expediency Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After World War II ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan, key countries of the victorious Allied Powers, including the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, began constructing plans for the postwar world. John Foster Dulles, at the time the chief adviser to the secretary of state, acknowledged that this was no easy task, as the experience of the peace talks at the end of World War I had taught him. Rather than making the world “safe for democracy,” as American president Woodrow Wilson had put it, the Treaty of Versailles became a pretext and prelude to another war. It was much easier for allies to agree upon war strategy to defeat their common enemies than it was to determine the best course of action for the future of mankind in a time of hopeful peace. However, that is exactly what the Council of Foreign Ministers—the representatives of five major Allied countries—set out to do in their talks during October 1945.

Summary Overview

After World War II ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan, key countries of the victorious Allied Powers, including the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, began constructing plans for the postwar world. John Foster Dulles, at the time the chief adviser to the secretary of state, acknowledged that this was no easy task, as the experience of the peace talks at the end of World War I had taught him. Rather than making the world “safe for democracy,” as American president Woodrow Wilson had put it, the Treaty of Versailles became a pretext and prelude to another war. It was much easier for allies to agree upon war strategy to defeat their common enemies than it was to determine the best course of action for the future of mankind in a time of hopeful peace. However, that is exactly what the Council of Foreign Ministers—the representatives of five major Allied countries—set out to do in their talks during October 1945.

Defining Moment

With the conclusion of World War II came a determination not to repeat the mistakes that had characterized the peace negotiations at the end of World War I. Although US president Woodrow Wilson had outlined an idealistic vision of the future and emphasized the role of the League of Nations in peacefully resolving differences between nations, the other allies that had borne the brunt of the fighting for the majority of the war—Great Britain, France, and Italy—were more concerned about punishing Germany for what they saw as its key role in starting the war. Emphasizing large reparations that would keep Germany impoverished, land concessions to each of the European nations to keep Germany small, and disarmament to keep Germany weak, the penalties imposed had the opposite effect, as Germany rearmed and became aggressive again after the rise of Adolf Hitler during the late 1920s and 1930s. Further, the League of Nations was less effective than it might have been because the United States did not participate.

During World War II, John Foster Dulles, a Republican, worked to create a new international organization that would take the place of the League of Nations once the war was over. He insisted that rather than shrinking from the world stage after the war, the United States must be prominently involved in what would become the United Nations. Only with the active leadership of the United States could the United Nations become the international advocate for peace. Dulles participated in the Dumbarton Oaks Conference—which outlined the future United Nations—that took place as Allied forces drove into Nazi Germany in late 1944. As the war drew to a conclusion, the Allied leaders, meeting at Potsdam in mid-1945, created the Council of Foreign Ministers, which met shortly after the conclusion of the Potsdam Conference to draw up the peace treaties with the Axis nations.

The Council of Foreign Ministers consisted of representatives from the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, France, and China. Meeting first in London in September 1945, the council sought to begin the work of creating peace treaties between the Allies and Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Italy, and Romania, as well as laying the groundwork for a treaty with Germany by negotiating the territorial claims that the victorious nations might have against Germany. However, the council was not able to come to an agreement at the end of the London conference, largely because of the lack of cooperation on the part of the Soviet Union, which did not want peace treaties concluded until its dominant position in Eastern Europe was made permanent by the installation of Communist governments.

Author Biography

Grandson of Secretary of State John W. Foster and nephew of Secretary of State Robert Lansing, John Foster Dulles seemed destined for a career in international relations. At the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I, he was appointed by President Wilson to serve as legal counsel for Lansing. He opposed the reparations that the other Allies demanded from Germany, which played a large role in setting the stage for a second war. After serving as foreign policy advisor for Democratic presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey in 1944, Dulles was appointed as an advisor to the Council of Foreign Ministers by President Harry S. Truman. Dulles became secretary of state in 1953, serving until April 1959, at which time he resigned because of his failing health. He died a month later.

Historical Document

At London the Council of Foreign Ministers began the task of peace making. This is no easy task. It is not a matter of victors imposing their will upon defeated enemies. When we get to that, it will be easy. Before we get to that, the victors must try to agree on what their joint will shall be. So, we are not now negotiating peace with Italy or Rumania or Germany. We are negotiating peace with the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and other United Nations. These nations have different interests and different ideals. To reconcile them is not a process of coercion but of reason.

I am under no illusion that that will be an easy task. I was at the peace conference which followed the First World War and there learned, at first hand, how difficult it is for a war coalition to maintain unity after victory has been won. It is possible that, this time also, we shall not agree on the post-war settlement. If that happens, it would lead to different nations' carrying out their will in particular areas. That is not necessarily a permanent disaster, but it would be most unfortunate. It would tend to divide the world into blocs and spheres of influence. That would be a bad heritage for the victors to bequeath the United Nations Organization.

Final Agreement Seen

So far as the United States delegation to London is concerned, we are determined to preserve in peace the unity we had in war and to apply the lesson we have so painfully learned, that peace is indivisible. There will be no bloc of Western powers if the United States can avoid it. Also, I may say, nothing that has happened so far makes me feel that we may not all come to agree.

I realize that it came as a shock to the American people that the Council of Foreign Ministers ended their first session without producing a public statement of unity and accomplishment. That is because for over four years every meeting of representatives of the great powers was followed by a pronouncement which gave the impression that complete harmony had been achieved. That was a war diet of soothing syrup. The reality was that there was unity in so far as it related to joint effort against common enemies. But behind that there have always been the differences which are now coming to light.

It is not healthy, and I am glad that it is no longer necessary, to try to cover up the fact that we have differences. Only if our people realize the magnitude of the task we face will we put forward the effort and achieve the unity needed for success.

I said that in the task upon which we have embarked the permissible tool is reason, not coercion. The American delegation was alive to that. We presented only propositions which seemed to us to be reasonable.

Basic Principles Espoused

The basic principles which we espoused were these:

1. Territorial settlements should, as far as possible, conform to the wishes of the peoples concerned. Strategic and economic considerations ought to be subordinated to human considerations. This principle would call for some territorial readjustments. But it would not give to Yugoslavia the large Italian population of Trieste.

2. The treaties should realize the conception of an international bill of rights. At Moscow in 1943 the Big Three had agreed that they sought for Italy a regime which would assure the Italian people freedom of speech, religious worship, political belief and public meeting. We were determined that the treaties of peace should give reality to that goal and make a practical beginning in the great project of assuring to all the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

3. Colonies should be dealt with primarily from the standpoint of the welfare of the colonial peoples and, as in the case of territorial adjustments, human considerations should prevail over strategic and commercial considerations. We called for independence within a fixed term and we proposed trusteeship by the United Nations Organization, rather than by any single power. That was the only solution which would avoid a disastrous struggle between the great powers for colonial prizes. Without it, there was no way to decide the rival claims for the Italian colonies of North Africa.

Supervision of Armaments

4. Armament of our ex-enemies should be limited and subjected to a system of supervision which would prevent secret rearmament as occurred after the last war in the case of Germany. This supervision is particularly important in view of the development of modern weapons of vast destructive power. This, we felt, compelled the inauguration of a system, which might later on be extended, whereby the human race would have facilities to protect itself against its own total destruction.

5. Finally we made it clear that we could not negotiate and conclude treaties of peace with governments which, as in Rumania, failed to provide those freedoms which, in conjunction with the Soviet Union and Great Britain, we had promised to seek for the liberated peoples of Europe.

The first ten days of the conference were devoted to considering the application of such principles to Italy, Finland, Rumania and Bulgaria. During the course of these discussions it became increasingly evident that the Soviet Union was dissatisfied with the trend of the conference. The American proposals, which in the main were supported by Great Britain, France and China, cut across certain political ends which the Soviet Union sought. For example, the Soviet Union was disposed to support the claim of Yugoslavia to Trieste. It wanted for itself trusteeship of Italy's most valuable colonial area in North Africa in order that it might develop for itself a great warm-water port in the Mediterranean comparable to what it had obtained in the Far East at Port Arthur and Dairen. Above all, the Soviet delegation objected to the refusal of the United States, under existing conditions, to conclude peace treaties with Rumania and Bulgaria.

Soviet Seeks a Test

It was discussion about Rumania on Sept. 21 which led the Soviet Union on Sept. 22 to move to test out the determination of the United States. The means chosen was to insist on a change of procedure. The underlying and understood purpose was to make it appear that the Soviet Union could and would interrupt any procedure which did not lead to results more satisfactory to it.

A great deal has been said, and much more doubtless will be said, as to whether the procedure under which the Conference was operating was in strict conformity with the Berlin agreement, which established the Council. I do not intend tonight to discuss that highly technical matter. It is not really very important. It is enough to say that the procedure which permitted France and China to be present at all Council meetings, though with no power of vote in certain cases, was agreed to by the Soviet Union on Sept. 11 and had been followed for ten days without question. Certainly the Soviet Union would not have accepted and followed a procedure which it believed to be violative of the Berlin agreement. Only when the procedure failed to produce results satisfactory to the Soviet Union did it demand a change which would have eliminated France and China. That change was demanded as a means of indicating Soviet displeasure with the course the negotiations were taking and as a means of finding out whether or not the United States was really determined to hold the basic principles I have described.

U. S. Unwilling to Sacrifice

The Soviet delegation believed, and rightly believed, that the United States attached great importance to preserving the appearance of unity among the Big Three. They also knew that we were anxious quickly to conclude peace with Italy. They wanted to find out how much of our principle we would sacrifice to attain these goals. They did find out. They found out that the United States was not willing to sacrifice its principles or its historic friendship with China and France.

That American decision vitally concerned the future of our nation. As Secretary Byrnes said last night, I participated with him in the making of that decision. I unqualifiedly concurred in it. However, he, as the Secretary of State, had to assume the primary responsibility, and he is entitled to the support of the American people, without regard to party, in standing for principle rather than expediency, in keeping with the best American tradition.

Let me hasten to say that I have no feeling that the Soviet delegation, in forcing that decision upon us, did anything that was not within their rights. In every important negotiation, public or private, there comes a moment when the negotiators test each other out. It was inevitable that a time should come when the Soviet Union would want to test us out. It is a good thing that that has happened and that it is now behind us.

The American people should see what has happened in its true proportions. We are at the beginning of a long and difficult negotiation which will involve the structure of the post-war world. The Soviet Union wants to know what our political attitude will be toward the states which border them, particularly in the Balkans. They want to know what our attitude is toward sharing with them the control of defeated Japan. They want to know what our attitude will be toward giving them economic aid. These and other matters must, in due course, be explored, and it may be that until that whole area has been explored, progress will be slow.

Good Beginning Made

Let us be calm and be mature. We have made not a bad, but a good, beginning. That beginning has not created difficulties. It has merely revealed difficulties of long standing, which war has obscured. It is healthy that we now know the facts. Furthermore, we have at the beginning shown that we stand firm for basic principles. That is of transcendent importance.

We are emerging from six years of war, during which morality and principle have increasingly been put aside in favor of military expediency. The war has now ended and with that ending principle and morality must be re-established in the world. The United States ought to take a lead in that. We are the only great nation whose people have not been drained, physically and spiritually. It devolves upon us to give leadership in restoring principle as a guide to conduct. If we do not do that, the world will not be worth living in. Indeed, it probably will be a world in which human beings cannot live. For we now know that this planet will, like others, become uninhabitable unless men subject their physical power to the restraints of moral law.


violative: involving violation

Document Analysis

Speaking after the conclusion of the London meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, Dulles looks both backward and forward. At the end of a four-year alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet actions at the London conference represent a distinct change in orientation. Given that the common enemy has been vanquished, Dulles speaks to the issues emerging in the Allies' attempts to create a peaceful postwar world at a difficult time. The conclusion of a conference demonstrates that negotiations between the victorious nations might be more difficult in peacetime than they had been during the war.

Dulles begins by stating that the negotiations that took place at London were less about peace with the Axis powers than they were about the victorious nations learning how to work together. His experience at Versailles in 1919 taught him “how difficult it is for a war coalition to maintain unity after victory has been won,” and the negotiations at London had reinforced the point, as the council had ended the meeting without any agreements, or even a public statement of unity between the powers. Rather, the conference exposed the differences between the powers that Dulles argued had always been there, but had been ignored by all sides during the war.

He then moves on to discuss the “reasonable” proposals shared, for the most part, by the United States, Great Britain, China, and France, beginning with the idea that people of the conquered regions—whether other nations or former colonies—should have the right of self-determination after the war. Also, he summarizes the point that the defeated powers should be armed for self-defense, but only under the supervision of the Allies. Finally, he emphasizes the belief that peace treaties should only be negotiated with governments that guarantee human rights and freedoms to their citizens. The problem, he concludes, lies in the divergence of opinion on these matters by the Soviet Union.

The Allies had refused to craft a peace treaty with Romania because of its refusal to guarantee human rights. The Soviets wanted a peace treaty that guaranteed that they would play a dominant role in Romania, as well as in the rest of Eastern Europe, and to that end sought to eliminate France and China from the conference. As the Soviet Union had allowed those two nations to take part in the conference earlier in the proceedings, Dulles explains this turn of events as a hypocritical method for the Soviets to undermine the unsatisfactory trajectory of the discussions. However, Dulles paints this first disagreement between the Allies in a positive way, expressing hopes that the US refusal to acquiesce to Soviet demands would set an example and pay dividends by conveying the unswerving resolve of the United States to “give leadership in restoring principle as a guide to conduct.”

Essential Themes

At the conclusion of the London conference, Dulles was well aware of the potential problems that characterized the postwar relations between the victorious powers; however, he thought that compromises made between the Americans and Soviets could create a peaceful postwar world. Over the course of the following few years, Dulles would realize that the Soviet Union's geopolitical aims were such that compromise was not an effective paradigm for foreign relations. The realities of what would quickly become the Cold War revealed that the Soviet intransigence demonstrated for the first time at the London conference was but a harbinger of prolonged political hostility. The Soviet desire to dominate Eastern Europe was not negotiable and would create, more than anything else, the shape of postwar Europe.

Dulles was a staunch opponent of any policies that appeased Soviet demands. As early as 1946, Dulles published an article called “Thoughts on Soviet Foreign Policy and What to Do about It,” which argued that the basic ideological differences between the United States and the Soviet Union were likely to lead to conflict between the nations for the foreseeable future. Later meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers in 1947 strengthened that belief in Dulles.

After Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in January 1953, he appointed Dulles secretary of state; views derived from his encounters with the Soviets at the end of World War II directly shaped American policy. During his term, the basic stance of the United States was that peace with the Soviets could only be forged through the policy of containment of Communism—which stood in direct opposition to the Soviet desire to expand Communism throughout Europe. To ensure the success of the Cold War order, Dulles was instrumental in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which would unite the nations of Western Europe and North America against Communism.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Immerman, Richard H. John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism, and Power in US Foreign Policy. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1999. Print.
  • Mastny, Vojtech. The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
  • Toulouse, Mark G. The Transformation of John Foster Dulles: From Prophet of Realism to Priest of Nationalism. Macon: Mercer UP, 1985. Print.
Categories: History